International tensions over the new UN observer misson in Syria mounted on Tuesday after Russia accused unnamed countries of seeking to destroy Kofi Annan‘s plan for a peaceful resolution to the 13-month-long crisis.
Amid claims of scores of dead in new violence undermining a partial and what western diplomats called a precarious ceasefire, Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, warned of attempts to sabotage the UN-backed plan. His remarks seemed aimed at both western and Arab countries, especially Qatar and Saudi Arabia, leading opposition to Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
“There are countries, there are external forces, that are not interested in the success of the current security council efforts, that are trying to replace the security council with informal formats such as the Friends of Syria group,” Lavrov was quoted as saying by Russian media. “The international community should think about the interests of the Syrian people, not their own opportunistic goals,” he urged. “There are those who want Kofi Annan’s plan to fail. Those who … from the beginning foretold the failure of Annan’s plan are doing a lot to see to it that this prophecy comes true.”
France, which hosting a conference in Paris of the Friends of Syria group to tighten sanctions on the Assad regime, warned in turn that the UN must respond firmly to any violation of the ceasefire, which came into effect last Thursday.
The UN denied that the Norwegian general who led an advance team to Damascus had quit, insisting that Robert Mood had never been expected to stay in Syria. It says up to 250 unarmed observers will eventually be deployed . Syria is trying to ensure that friendly countries, including Russia, are well represented.
But Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary general, said on Tuesday that 250 would be “not enough considering the current situation and the vastness of the country”.
Colonel Ahmed Himmiche, the Moroccan head of the six-member initial team, described the mission as “a difficult process [that] requires coordination and planning.” Another 25 monitors are expected to arrive in Syria within days.
The Local Co-ordination Commitees, a Syrian activist network, reported that 47 had been killed on Tuesday, mostly in the Idlib area. A similar number were reported to have been killed by government security forces on Monday. The figures cannot be independently confirmed. Other opposition sources reported movements of military helicopters and tanks as well as arrests and shelling in Homs and elsewhere.
The Emir of Qatar, Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, warned on Monday that the Annan plan had only a 3% chance of success. The wealthy Gulf state has repeatedly called for the arming of Syrian rebels. On Monday night, Twitter users spread false rumours that Qatar had experienced a coup against the emir — a story that was immediately blamed on Syrian government supporters.
Prospects for the ceasefire lasting look deeply uncertain. Analyst Shadi Hamid of the Doha Brookings Centre tweeted: “We’re letting #Syria regime get away with murder, stretching the notion of ‘ceasefire’ beyond recognition – all for a plan few people expect to work.”
Walid al-Muallim, Syria’s foreign minister, was holding talks in China, which along with Russia has protected Syria from UN security council censure in recent months, though both back Annan’s six-point plan for a ceasefire, humanitarian and media access and a “Syrian-led” political process to discuss the future.
Annan himself joined Arab foreign ministers in Doha for a meeting of the Arab League and Saudi-dominated Gulf Co-operation Council.